How to spend your holidays in Sabah Borneo?

It was my childhood dream to visit the third-largest island in the world called Borneo. The reason was that I’ve heard a lot about wild life and beautiful nature there. It also gave me the impression that the island was not that crowded with tourists and backpackers as the other parts of South East Asia.

Because I live in Bali, Indonesia I wanted to experience a different country, so I decided to travel to the Malaysian part of Borneo. I found out very quickly that Borneo is so huge that it was impossible to see it in 10 days. I decided to visit only one province and discover it in more details. Based on a consultation with my travel buddies I choose province called Sabah. I would like to share my experience and tips for food, accommodation and activities. Enjoy!


Tips for Sabah Borneo

Sabah (Malay pronunciation: [saˈbah]), is one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo (Sarawak being the other state). Sabah is situated in northern Borneo, bordering the state of Sarawak to the southwest, Kalimantan to the south. Kota Kinabalu is the capital city, other major towns in Sabah include Sandakan and Tawau. Sabah has an equatorial climate with tropical rainforests and abundant animal and plant species. The total land area of Sabah is nearly 72,500 square kilometres (28,000 sq mi) surrounded by the South China Sea in the west, Sulu Sea in the northeast and Celebes Sea in the southeast. Because of Sabah coastline facing three seas, the state receive an extensive marine resources. Sabah economy are mainly based on primary sector such as agriculture, forestry and petroleum. Source: Wikipedia

Cool! That was a bit of general information and now let’s go into my travel story powered by 31 photos and a video! I traveled to Sabah with my friend Michel who lives in Bali too.

Kota Kinabalu.

Kota Kinabalu is the capital city of Sabah and has an international airport. We flew from Denpasar/Bali directly to Kota Kinabalu and the flight took around 3 hours. After the arrival in KK we took a public transport bus which cost us 5 MYR. It took around 30 minutes to get into the city centre where we found our hostel easily. Sensi Backpackers Hostel was booked via and I can highly recommend it for it’s central location and friendly atmosphere. The first evening in the hostel we met Naomi from England and Chan from China and they helped us plan the whole trip. Thanks for that guys!
sensi hostel kota kinabalu

We spent 2 days in Kota Kinabalu and it was all about food discovery. The first discovered local dish was “Laksa”. Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup in the Peranakan cuisine, which is a combination of Chinese and Malay cuisine. Laksa consists of rice noodles or rice vermicelli with chicken, prawn or fish, served in spicy soup; either based on rich and spicy curry coconut milk, or based on sour asam (tamarind or gelugur). It was my favourite dish and I ate it almost every day. As you can see on the picture, Michel and I were ready to take photos with our selfie sticks, so the main motto of our trip in Sabah was: “Two better than one!” 🙂
laksa kota kinabalu

The biggest highlight of our food discovery was the night fish market in Kota Kinabalu. You can get delicious fresh fish and seafood there, don’t mind to negotiate the price.
night market kota kinabalu

I love to discover local stuff and especially the local street food, so I decided to try Malaysian seaweed. It was interesting… Salty and the texture was weird #haha At least the locals had fun when they saw me eating it.
sabah borneo

The locals in Kota Kinabalu seemed very relaxed. One of the best travel nights ever was when I was hanging out with other travellers and we met locals playing Nirvana on the street. They invited us for a beer and we said yes! That was fun. It was also fun to observe this newly-wed couple taking wedding photos in front of a local graffiti wall. There should be more love and street art in the world.
kiss malaysia

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

On the second morning we took a bus from Kota Kinabalu to Sepilok. It was a 6 hour ride without any complications. Naomi recommended a new hostel called Sepilok Nature lodge so we stayed there for two nights. It was all very new and clean and the guy running it was very helpful.

The main reason why we traveled to Sepilok was to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The centre was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The site is 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today around 60 to 80 orangutans are living free in the reserve.
orangutan in sepilok

The orangutans are the two exclusively Asian species of extant great apes. Native to Indonesia and Malaysia, orangutans are currently found in only the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

Orangutans are among the most intelligent primates. The apes have been extensively studied for their learning abilities. Fruit makes up 65–90% of the orangutan diet, and those with sugary or fatty pulp are favoured.

Both orangutan species are considered to be endangered, with the Sumatran orangutan being critically endangered. Human activities have caused severe declines in the populations and ranges of both species. Threats to wild orangutan populations include poaching, habitat destruction, and the illegal pet trade. Several conservation and rehabilitation organisations are dedicated to the survival of orangutans in the wild and that’s exactly what the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre does.
Orangutan sepilok

It was very interesting to see orangutans with my own eyes. I was fascinated by their moves and their behaviour. It’s maybe strange to say but after an hour of observation I saw many similarities between them and us – humans. They are simply like us. I was so inspired by their flexibility and movements in the threes so I had to try their moves… Well, I guess that orangutans are much better climbing trees than myself and I hope that they will do so freely for many more years.

A tip for food! Sepilok is a very touristy area and there are not many options to eat cheap. There is a small “warung” with tasty food on the parking lot before you arrive to the rehabilitation centre. Try their roti, nasi goreng or vegetable soup. Yummy!
sepilok food

Kinabatangan River.

Our next step of the Borneo wild life adventure led us to the area of Kinabatangan River. We took a private transport from Sepilok to Sukau village where we stayed for one night.

Kinabatangan river is (in)famous for lot of wild animals living in a small area, so it’s perfect for tourists to see them in a relatively short time. Everything happens for a reason. And the reason why it’s so easy to see so many animals is that Borneo is covered with palm tree plantations and the original forest was destroyed. So there is a narrow strip of forest along the river where animals are sort of trapped.
palm tree plantation Borneo

On the photo below is one of many examples of deforestation in Malaysia. Between 1990 and 2010 Malaysia lost 8.6% of its forest cover, or around 1,920,000 hectares (4,700,000 acres). Currently, it is estimated that 59.9% of the total area is covered by forests, of which, a sizeable portion are untouched virgin forests (see old-growth forests) which dates back to around 130 million years. The consequences of deforestation are:
1) 18% of endemic species are listed as ‘threatened’
2) Indigenous peoples in Malaysia are loosing their traditional ways of life. As the forest disappears, so does their culture.
3) Sudden floods are becoming more and more frequent
4) Mudslides have also increased (Source: Wikipedia)

It was an eye-opening experience to travel through Sabah by bus. It was also heart breaking to see how many palm tree plantations are present there. Palm oil is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Its use in the commercial food industry in other parts of the world is widespread because of its lower cost. Not everything comes with a lower cost though. Can you imagine loosing orangutans or other species from the pictures below?

We were touched by the deforestation of Borneo, but we still wanted to see the animals that live there. Join us for a boat trip on Kinabatangan River where our two selfie sticks were present again 🙂
sukau boat trip

Which were the animals that we spotted from the Kinabatangan River boat cruise?
Here she is! When you look closer at the photo you can spot a wild female orangutan, chilling in the tree and eating some fruit. The boat stopped for 20 minutes so we could observe this amazing animal for a while.
wild orangutan

The second animal that was spotted during the boat trip was a crocodile. It looked scary but as soon we got closer to him, he disappeared into the water.
crocodile sukau

The third animal that we spotted was an elephant, or several elephants! I couldn’t believe my eyes that I saw wild elephants. They were pretty far away and hiding in the trees, but it was still amazing to be so close to them.
elephants sukau

The Fourth animal – and an absolute surprise – was a proboscis monkey. I have never heard about this type of long nosed monkey before and I wish that I would have a better camera lens so you could see better how this monkey looks like. Google it 🙂
probiscous monkey

I hope that you enjoyed our boat ride. I recommend to do an afternoon boat tour because it should be the best to see many different animals.


Semporna is a district as well as town located in Tawau Division, in the east coast of Sabah. Semporna is the gateway to diving and snorkelling paradise in world-renowned islands like Sipadan, Mabul, Kapalai, Mataking, Sibuan, Mantabuan, Siamil and Pom Pom among others. (Michel is missing her stick haha).
Semporna Mosque

We decided to do a one day snorkeling tour that led us to different islands. I believe that we paid around 130 ringit each and the main objective was to hike Bohey Dulang island and snorkel around some beautiful island.

This boat tour started by visiting islands that are inhabited by sea gypsy people, a nomadic Borneo tribe who spend their lives on the water.

Traditionally, these boat dwelling nomads are from the many islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines but many have migrated to the neighbouring area of Sabah, Borneo, due to the conflict in Muslim Mindanao. They have no citizenship and therefore no rights to public amenities or schools. Source:

The visit of sea gypsies was interesting as well as exhausting. They are used to tourists coming on boats and expect us to bring them some sweets or spare some coins.

The underwater world around islands of Semporna was fascinating. My GoPro underwater case was broken so I didn’t have a chance to take photos but snorkeling or diving in Borneo is a highly recommended activity.

One of the best activities that I’ve seen and done was a hike to Bohey Dulang island. The hike was just 600m, but perhaps it can be exhausting for people who are not used to the tropical humid weather. The views were spectacular and it was difficult to leave that kind of beauty.
Bohey Dulang island

Funny thing was that on top of Bohey Dulang we met one couple from Czech republic and one couple from Slovakia. The world is small!

The adventure was not yet done. On the way back from the last island it started raining so the waves got stronger and the boat was jumping like crazy. As you can see on the picture, I loved it!
semporna boat ride


We took a night bus from Semporna back to Kota Kinabalu and although the bus broke down and we had to wait two hours in the middle of the night it didn’t leave a bad taste about this trip. Michel flew back to Bali on the next day and I stayed two more days in Kota Kinabalu, working online and visiting local food markets several times per day.

I hope that you enjoyed this photo story and in case you have questions, leave them in the comment section below.

With love from Bali and a sweet memory of Kapilai island
Snorkeling Semporna

PS: Video story.

Michel did a nice video about our backpacking adventure in Borneo so check it out 🙂

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About the Author
profile_blogThanks for reading this article! My name is Silvia and I’m from Slovakia. I’m passionate about entrepreneurship, marketing, traveling, surfing, photography and I’m in the search of the best ways how to combine it all. Over the past 3 years I changed my lifestyle completely. From an employee in a larger company I started freelancing and working online to be location independent. What drives me is the idea that if I want to, I can book a ticket and go surfing anywhere in the world and stay as long as I want. Also, I gathered lot of content and ideas inspired by beautiful people, places and products. I blog and organize presentations about these topics. Safe travels!

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